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The Octopus: An Alien Among Us (lithub.com)
525 points by BerislavLopac 20 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 275 comments



So octopuses are very intelligent, and very alien. Anyone who has even casually read or watched videos about them will know this.

But their potential is cut short by their incredibly short lives (like 5? years at the higher end) which seem to be caused by a very bizarre self-destructive behavior after mating (starving themselves, eating their own arms), which in turn is caused by an "optic gland" and removing that gland completely eliminates that self-destructiveness and increases their lifespan.

It makes you wonder if that gland was artificially engineered into them.

The sci-fi nerd in me likes to think there is a cosmic conflict between axial-symmetry species and radial-symmetry species, which may be overall more common in the universe given how life evolves at the microscopic scale, and Earth was chosen to give apes a chance.


If I recall correctly, one theory is that octopuses are such voracious cannibals that a swift demise after reproduction evolved to keep them from eating the next generation.


Did that evolution happen faster than it took the previous un-evolved octopuses to eat all their young?


I guess so, because if the cannibals had won there would be no octopuses


The cannibal octopi groups would have died out while the suicidal ones lived.


> It makes you wonder if that gland was artificially engineered into them.

There is a comment below by biztos imagining that if octopi lived longer, they would be the apex species that was failing to fight the climate change - in place of humans.

Made me think that maybe they were at one point, and then the octopus civilization itself decided to "solve the problem" by engineering a shorter time-to-live into their species and preventing intelligent behavior :)


I believe octopuses is preferred over octopi


In regards to sci-fi, it sounds like the inverse of A Mote In God's Eye. Where [Spoiler Alert] the alien "Moties" had a biology that killed them if they went too long without mating.


there's also a short story "love is the plan, the plan is death" that deals with similar themes (from an alien perspective)


Isn't that basically natural selection?



you're going to love Peter Watts' "The Things":

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/watts_01_10/

it's 1982's "the thing", from the perspective of the, well, thing :)


Wow, this is really an interesting read! Now I want Star Trek told from the perspective of the Borg :D


wouldn't that be fun?


It's great! I still want it to die, though. :) Have no sympathy for it. (But empathy, sure.)


There's actually a TV series which has the premise that humans fight octopuses. In space. It's called Gargantia.


If it was engineered such that humans win out over octopuses, why not, just not include octopuses directly? Then again this wouldn’t Mae a good sci-fi novel...


> If it was engineered such that humans win out over octopuses, why not, just not include octopuses directly?

The original limits were symmetrical. They just haven't yet noticed humans started living long enough to develop into a technological species.


Because genocide would cause corresponding repercussions, of course. :)

If you eliminate a radial intelligence somewhere they eliminate an axial intelligence somewhere. Roundabout hindering them is clearly allowed.

It may even have been a compensation for the seemingly barren corner of the galaxy we're in.


I think this is a plot in one of the new Star Trek discovery episodes in season 2. "The Sound of Thunder" if I believe.


If that became a book or a film, I'll "consume" it.


Not exactly the format you're looking for, but that premise is exactly the story behind Alkaloid's excellent (imo) "Rise of the Cephalopods": https://alkaloidsom.bandcamp.com/track/rise-of-the-cephalopo...


Just as good! I used to listen to a lot of death metal as well as stuff like the Cardiacs and other 80s alt music. This feels like a combo of both.


> But their potential is cut short by their incredibly short lives (like 5? years at the higher end)

Like, even for giant octopus? How do they get so large, in such a short amount of time?


Google's info box for giant octopus confirms right away that, yes, they too live for 3-5 years.


> Like, even for giant octopus? How do they get so large, in such a short amount of time?

Usual adult giant octopuses are similar (in weight) to 3 year old humans, so it's not really surprising they get that big over a 3-5 year lifespan.


Giant squids are several times the weight of an adult human and also get that big over only a handful of years.


And I'm guessing they start up a bit smaller too.


Just saw this yesterday and feel it's apropos for this thread:

Octopus Dreaming - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vKCLJZbytU

Some of the best imagery I've ever seen of chromatophores (and other *phores) in action.


That's awesome. I don't find it hard to believe that the octopus is dreaming, but I am a little skeptical of the interpretation of the evidence. Humans get erections throughout the night which have nothing to do with sexual dreams, so maybe the chromatophores cycling are just like that.


My impression was that men get erections at night to prevent themselves from peeing when they have a full bladder while asleep.

But Wikipedia suggests that there is some controversy around the exact causes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nocturnal_penile_tumescence

It’s hard to imagine what reason a sleeping octopus would have for cycling through colors if not related to their dreams.


What about a purely "maintain in good functional state"? I mean, when there are not used, muscles atrophy. Maybe a similar phenomenon would happen if these cells were not regularly stimulated during sleep.


It is not a muscle


That was not the point, atrophy is not a phenomenon limited to muscles. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atrophy


Evolutionarily speaking, what would be wrong with peeing in your sleep?


Urine attracts ticks and wet loin cloths can cause skin damage. Though for the erection part, erections are linked to the parasympathetic nerve system, which is fully active during sleep.(Which is why it's hard for men to get erections when they're chronically stressed)


The scent may have alerted predators to your location.


You wake up with pee all over you.


Experiments with mice have shown that if you shock mice at certain times during sleep, their fear conditioning will change. https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/26/5/527/2707886 This seems to indicate that sleep acts like an unsupervised learning reinforcer.

Sleep might be required for a certain level of consciousness.


You might be interested in "hippocampal replay" and "sequence reactivation" during sleep

TL;DR during sleep, most critters' brains actively "re-play" waking experiences, and this contributes to learning+memory. I can't find the paper right now, but at a talk in ~2013 some guy presented work in which spatial trajectories run by rats were reconstructed from hippocampal place cell activation sequences during sleep

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocampal_replay

https://www.jneurosci.org/content/28/31/7883

http://sci-hub.tw/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2019.01.0...

https://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(17)31441...


very interesting, thanks!


Thanks for sharing this! Was mid bite of my lunch and just stopped with my mouth open.


Wow... if dreaming evolved twice, I don't know what to think.


If you spend enough time in a sensory deprivation tank, you will usually start experiencing abstract thoughts and sensory hallucinations. Dreaming is likely similar in that it's just the natural result of a few moving parts:

1. An eager sensory network with no inputs can introduce phantom inputs into the network, which can evolve through feedback loops in networks not being stimulated by real sensory phenomena

2. The brain and body's tendency to actively "simulate" its internal representation of the world, by creating mental scenarios and then playing them out.

When you throw a baseball, your CNS & muscles run simulations which adjust your motor neuron activation profile and the way your muscular cells function based on feedback from the brain about the success of the action.

When you practice a speech, you visualize the place you will be delivering it, visualize the audience and their potential reactions, so that you can plan accordingly. This is another kind of mental simulation.

Dreams might be the same thing, generating sensory feedback loops from brain activity resulting from memory organization and compression during the sleep cycle, simulating a world and then running through the simulation.

This can greatly increase an organism's survival if the organism's entire life revolves around finding food and avoiding predators / catching prey. While they are hidden and safely sleeping, animals are still able to "train" themselves completely unconsciously.

Seeing as how evolutionarily useful it is, I'm not surprised to see it crop up in multiple kinds of brains and would be very surprised if advanced aliens do not dream as well.


To me the question is if the octopus is subjectively experiencing the dream. I guess there's no reason to think it doesn't. Dogs definitely seem to dream and wake up scared shitless at times...cephalopods seem smarter than dogs.


I think it does based on my theory for the strong evolutionary benefits of dreaming. If consciousness is a result of total brain and body function, then some level of that consciousness is needed in order to carry out survival-based simulations while you sleep.

The level of consciousness can vary between organisms and dreams. As an active lucid dreamer I frequently enjoy full "consciousness" in my dreams, able to fully make decisions instead of subscribing to my brain's prestructured rules for navigating the simulated construct. I can even often control the parameters of the simulation itself.

Most people however never experience this kind of dream, and are completely slave to the dream. The only thing which imparts their subjective experience is the ability to recall the dream. Memory is definitely a key component to a subjective experience.


Being able to make decisions in a dream is normal, right? I think strategically in my dreams, mull over advantages and disadvantages and plan my response the same way I would while awake - with less clarity though. Sometimes I get so carried away that takes up the whole dream. I don't think that's atypical.

I also get pissed off when I recognize something that's logically contradictory or impossible and realize it's a dream - although I miss a lot of obvious tells.


It's actually very atypical. Most people do not lucid dream or at least recall a lucid dream more than a handful of times in their lives, and certainly not intentionally. More people can make their own decisions, to some capacity, but the insight that your situation isn't real isn't common.


> I also get pissed off when I recognize something that's logically contradictory or impossible and realize it's a dream - although I miss a lot of obvious tells.

I would use that chance. If you are aware that you are dreaming, you can change the contents of the dream. Google "lucid dream".


Can you change much without waking up?


Depends on the dream. I've developed a sense of how much brain activity I have going on.

Sometimes I have a good grip, I'm deep in REM, and I can do anything I want for a while with no consequence. I am still tending to my brain activity but it's manageable. Other times, the slightest deviation from my preprogrammed behavior is enough to perturb the dream.

I have countless times woken up when pushing myself too far, but it's gotten better. So sometimes I am quite lucid but just have to not think too hard or deviate much from my preprogrammed behavior. Too much effort or going too wild breaks the dream. But very often I choose to fly around, visit places and people, and sometimes interact.

I've even had a few dreams where I've managed to do simple arithmetic and memory recall without waking up. Plenty of dreams where I try to write things down thinking I'll still have it when I wake up.

A recent fascination I've had the last few months is pushing boundaries with my dream characters. Several weeks ago I had a dream where I was having a conversation with someone, and paused to observe that the situation wasn't real. Normally I've found I have to keep this knowledge to myself because the dream will immediately break up, but this time I remarked to the girl that she wasn't real and in fact was a figment of a dream. She looked at me and said that she was and I was acting crazy. She wouldn't believe me.

So since then I've been trying to provoke my dream people by telling them they are not real to see what kind of responses I get.

In a pretty recent dream, I found myself in a huge pasture where a hot air balloon festival was taking place. A girl was sitting on a blanket eating something, so I kicked myself high into the air and glided down to first show her that I could warp the laws of physics, then I whispered in her ear that it was just a dream and she was an apparition. She smiled and said out loud, "I know this is all just a dream," at which point everyone around her just looked at me in affirmation.

I got really nervous but no one seemed to mind, so I managed to spend about half an hour talking to all sorts of people both imaginary and from my real life, having conversations about the nature of existence and dreaming and pondering on how my brain was able to create all of this in realtime. Then someone wearing all black with short cropped hair ran up to me, grabbed my by the shoulders and shook me while fervently repeating something in a language I didn't understand. Their eyes looked wild and pleading and they kept repeating the same thing over and over until they were convinced that I couldn't understand, at which point I was told another word and the figure let go and ran off into the crowd. I wasn't able to find them, but the excitement of the experience and running around got my brain amped up and things began to slowly go white. I asked a few people if they recognized the person but they didn't, and I woke up. The experience was a bit unsettling.


There was a time I was a lucid dreamer too. I did it using a simple technique my dad taught me which is to keep a notepad next to bed and every time you wake up from a dream, write everything you can remember down. Then read what you wrote before falling asleep.

Within a short time, I developed full consciousness in my dreams. I was lucid and I could even reshape my dreams while dreaming, or reenact or resume dreaming from one night to the next. I would recall every detail in full during the day. Dreams did not fade away anymore.

After a few weeks I became exhausted with dreaming, and I started dreading going to bed. Even after halting lucid dreaming practices, to this day I still have very detailed dreams I can remember for days or years. The dream anxiety from going into lucid dreaming caused me insomnia during at least 5 years.


> A recent fascination I've had the last few months is pushing boundaries with my dream characters. Several weeks ago I had a dream where I was having a conversation with someone, and paused to observe that the situation wasn't real. Normally I've found I have to keep this knowledge to myself because the dream will immediately break up, but this time I remarked to the girl that she wasn't real and in fact was a figment of a dream. She looked at me and said that she was and I was acting crazy. She wouldn't believe me.

Interesting. I met a long-dead relative once in a dream, and he told me "I'm not really here" and I said "I know" and we enjoyed the moment together.


Just reading that gives me goosebumps. It's strangely comforting, but eerie all the same. Glad you two had a moment to reconnect. :)


I wonder if this kind of control over dreams can be used to do real work while dreaming (you just have to remember the solution and write it down when you wake up).


I really want to. I want to do more studying of the living subjects and environments in my dreams. I think oneirology and in turn the knowledge corpus of brain's simulation prowess is still completely in its infancy.

I've successfully solved basic arithmetic which requires mid-term memory allocation like multiplication and long division. I want to train myself to use a keyboard and type but I have back problems and often can't sleep on my back. I want to figure out a way for people to ask me questions and give me tasks.


Curious to know if you're a drug user?


I have experienced sleep paralysis for most of my life, I can still vividly remember the first night it happened as a small child. So I hallucinate things when I'm coming to/fro sleep.

My dreams were pretty vivid before but it was only after that when I began to train myself. But I would commonly see people, ghosts, aliens, monsters, etc. creep out of the shadows at night and touch me or just remain beside me while I was drifting off. A couple of months ago I (hopefully) hallucinated that I was visited by a succubus and it was quite tangible and vivid.


So basically Inception sans multiplayer?


Actually yeah it's really like that sometimes lol. I've had a few dreams where everyone in the dream suddenly turns on me. And I use a lot of the same techniques for knowing if you're dreaming! I think Nolan must have consulted with lucid dreamers to know about things like the top, or coin. For me, my go-tos are light switches, a watch or any clock, looking closely at people's faces, and a bunch of other cues which signal an imperfect simulation.

Between ages 0-6 it was mostly just maze dreams, where I would be trapped in some twisty, morphing construct like a hospital or apartment building. At the time I assumed it was because I didn't have much life experience and so it was mostly visual and without social interaction, and the labyrinths represented my confusion about my surroundings and my feelings of being lost and powerless. But Inception's aesthetics and the dream mazes gave me goose bumps because of how close to home it hit!

For most of my childhood and teenage years it was overwhelmingly chase dreams. I was always running from some person or organization, and everyone was suspect. Sometimes right in the neighborhood, but often crazy blockbuster set pieces or different time periods. Lots of dreams where people realized I didn't belong and started chasing me like Inception.

Now I have a lot of dreams where I'm back in high school, or in prison, my teeth are all falling out, or a couple of other staples. Lots of reoccurring characters and locations. Last month I had a dream I was back in my elementary school, and because there were so many people I recognized and because the dream lasted uninterrupted for so many hours despite my lucidness and being aware that it wasn't reality, that I truly became convinced I had died or fallen into a coma while sleeping and was now experiencing a prolonged hallucination.


But dogs are a lot closer genetically to humans than octopuses are. Perhaps dreaming has something to do with intelligence, perhaps it has something to do with how our brain is structured.


The (very) amateur deep learning/ml developer in me wonders if these feedback loops in the brain are the key or something to the conundrum that backprop isn't neuromorphic (that we've found, last time I researched this)?

That is, everything is "feedforward" but the outputs sometimes are fed back to the inputs (both literally, and "figuratively" though physical means - ie, motor outputs move arms which the eyes see and turn back into sensory stimuli, etc)...

...I'm not naive enough to think that is an original thought, though.


It's probably more like a system which shares input at various stages of processing, and through both intentional and accidental means this information can return to other places in the network.

In other words I don't think we discretely process each sensory input on its own before propagating the result, but instead we process things in tandem, sharing intermediate information and then eventually reconstruct it all as one experience.

For example, just in a temporal sense your body receives and processes tons of sensory input coming in at various times but it "feels" like it happens all at once. When I slap your leg, you feel the impulse, see the action, and hear the impact all at once despite the wildly varying times it takes for these inputs to reach and be processed by your brain. But your brain doesn't just wait to "see" the slap until you actually feel it. Instead, your brain "error corrects" the past with new information.

It's incorrect to view your consciousness as a singular state at any given time; rather, your experience exists in a fuzzy temporal location with no well-defined boundaries. It's hard to grok but here is another example:

If you move your eyes quickly to another location [0], your brain "fakes" what you see, before replacing that information with real information. For this reason, if you sometimes look at a wall clock with a ticking (not continuous) second hand at just the right moment, the second hand seems to hover for a slight while longer before continuing its path around the clock.

So I think your brain samples and holds previous sensory information for reuse. It could recall memories to help with this, but a much faster and reliable method for experiences like a saccade or a multi-sensory event would likely be to retain recent sensory phenomena in order to reuse it in the sensory pipeline. This network simultaneously enables internal simulation and thus dreaming. That is just personal theory and I would like to test it, but theoretically it makes sense to me.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saccade


I've had this exact insight and I think it is the case.

I'll take it even further. There are delays in propagation (duh). Because of this, the loops of neurons are resonant with certain frequencies of firing rates.

Perhaps my favorite neural loop is the one that exits our skull and then reenters through the acoustic medium. If you put your speech into a microphone, through a delay line, then back into your ears it completely kills your ability to talk.

https://speechjammerapp.com/

A brain is a mechanical system resonant with abstract concepts.


> loops of neurons are resonant with certain frequencies of firing rates

Do you hypothesize a distributed, or centrallized control mechanism for this behavior? Like a direct consequence of each neuron's encoding, or is it parameterized in a way which can be changed on-the-fly via a control circuit? Maybe both?


What? I am pretty sure many other animals dream, as would anyone who has pets or observes animals.


The brains in almost all intelligent animals, from humans to crocodiles, evolved once. The most recent common ancestor of you and the average salamander had a brain that wasn't that much different than ours. It's not particularly surprising that both dogs and humans dream, because our most recent common ancestor was only a few tens of millions of years ago.

The most recent common ancestor between humans and octopuses was hundreds of millions of years ago. That ancestor wasn't dumb the way a frog is dumb, it was dumb the way a clam is dumb. It quite literally did not have a brain.

So yes, it's weird that both octopuses and the other branch of intelligent life both dream. That's interesting, and it tells us something about intelligence. If both birds and bats, who developed flight independently, both had sonar and bad vision, that would be interesting, and would tell us something about flight.


Ah I thought the parent comment meant that only humans dreamt.


Probably that offline training is a significant boost to an intelligent creature's fitness function? (Where all mammals and quite a few other animals qualify as 'intelligent').

The more you can learn from that near-death experience without having another one, the less likely you are to become something's lunch.


What do you mean if dreaming evolved twice - are you implying only humans dream? Because my dog dreams.


Either a common ancestor of mammals and cephalopods dreamt or it evolved (at least) twice.


that is absolutely gorgeous. i was watching this all day yesterday...and playing Ringo's Octopus' Garden.

Cephalopod intelligence is a thing. I have often wondered if only intelligence/sentience is connected to dreaming. octopi dream..cats dream, but do insects dream?


This was incredible thank you for sharing.


Anyone interested to read more about the octopus' brain, this article is worth reading: http://greymattersjournal.com/dive-into-the-mind-of-an-octop...

In a nutshell:

1) Octopuses have a "vertical lobe", which is very similar in function and organization to our hippocampus.

2) Mammalian hippocampuses have the ability for something known as "longterm potentiation" (LTP), which is believed to play a crucial part in memory and learning. Experiments found a similar longterm potentiation mechanism in the vertical lobe of octopuses.

Quoting the article: "The discovery of LTP in octopuses provides evidence for convergent evolution that has led to the selection of similar synaptic activity. Though not yet agreed upon in the scientific community, the existence of LTP in both mammals and octopuses strengthens the concept of LTP as a cellular basis for learning and memory and may be a general mechanism for associative learning".


Good read! Adrian Tchaikovsky explored octopus consciousness in the sci-fi novel 'Children of Ruin'. They really do seem alien.


I assume this is the sequel to 'Children of Time'? I enjoyed it, so I guess I should check out the sequel sooner rather than later.


It is - I thought it remained excellent, but unlike Children of Time, missed the mark a bit on its potential.


Just finished, would definitely recommend. The book has many interesting ideas, not just the octopodes :)


Yeah, it legit turned into horror at one point - it's been a while since a book gave an adrenaline rush. Loved it.


> it legit turned into horror at one point

As did the first book, in a different way.

Just the thought of something like this[0] whose body is ~4 feet long (let alone the legs, too) is enough to descend into horror territory for me.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDtlvZGmHYk


oh this sounds fun. Will add it to the front of the book queue for this weekend.


Make sure to read Children of Time first, otherwise some of the context will be lost.


Already have! I enjoyed it a lot.


I actually enjoyed it a bit more than Children of Time. Both are great books.


The intelligence of related cephalopod 'cuttlefish' was also highlighted in Baxter's "Time" novel:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_(Baxter_novel)


I'm not sure if that counts as well but Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee Rama series includes "octospider" species but that would be more for "alien" part in the article title.


Yeah, it was a fantastic deep dive into how a creature like that perceives and operates within reality. Not as enjoyable as Children of Time IMHO as I preferred the evolutionary journey of the Portiids more, but still excellent. Ending was lacking though. Hope he does a third book.


Also: genetically modified squid in Stephen Baxter's book 'Time'.


The thing that I keep wondering about is, why don't octopuses have higher aspirations? Like building octopus cities, and forming an octopus empire. Or figuring out how to pass on information from generation to generation. Could an octopus be taught English?


As I understand it they have very short lifespans (3-5 years) and octopus mothers only lay eggs once. They die of starvation after guarding & tending the eggs right up to hatching.

I think they just don’t have the opportunity to produce culture. Maybe they could be taught but it seems like generational learning would be extremely unlikely.

Edit: their situation has always struck me as very poetic and sad. If they are conscious their existence seems so lonely. But maybe that’s just my mammalian bias!


FWIW I think that behavior may be specific to the Giant Pacific octopus[1]. I'm not sure if other octopuses (octopi? octopodes?) behave the same way.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_Pacific_octopus


As far as my understanding goes, the octopuses that don't exhibit that behavior are the exception to the rule instead.


Maybe they would be a better candidate for uplift than dolphins then? We could start out by fixing their lifespans (apparently it's a surgically resolvable problem, see [0]), and seeing what happens.

--

[0] - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21086642


Actually, they do "build cities" as it was recently discovered: https://qz.com/1077632/octlantis-is-a-just-discovered-underw...


This remind me of a great quote from the film "Man From Earth":

* I mean, assuming normal intelligence. Well, we think men of the upper Paleolithic were as intelligent as we are. They just didn't know as much. John's man would have learned as the race learned. In fact, if he had an inquiring mind, his knowledge might be...astonishing.*

Octopodes may very well suffer from this, they may be very intelligent but just don't have the means to gain sufficient knowledge. If you think about it, take the average human, and private him from all of our current body of knowledge, and it will have a hard time achieving anything in earth's environment.


This is such a great underrated film.


Anyone interested in thinking about this should read Children of Time and the sequel Children of Ruin.

The first is about the (accidental) future uplift of spiders via genetic engineering and evolution, the sequel about octopuses. The author does an excellent job of imagining how this might come to pass.


Notably, Octopii never meet their offsprings.


Most octopus live fewer than 3 years.


That, I think is the most important reason.

It takes almost 20 years for a modern human to become a productive member of society. In 3 years, we are barely able to communicate properly. Octopuses simply don't have time to learn and instead must rely on innate skills.


> It takes almost 20 years for a modern human to become a productive member of society.

The expectation of attending school for most of those years tends to greatly hinder the speed at which one can become a productive member of society though. Three years is certainly pushing it, but those in early adolescence have proven that they can be productive members of society, even modern society, if they focus on the right things.

We allow people to delay becoming productive members of society well beyond the time they technically could be productive because:

1. Thanks to modern technology, we now can allow it. Go back into earlier human history and not being productive in early adolescence means you would not survive. That is no longer an issue we need to worry about.

2. Since the above is no longer an issue, we are able to see the human experience as being about more than just being productive. We want to give time to explore the world in ways that is not directly useful, but enlightening nonetheless.


This. It is not long enough to gain wisdom and pass it to the next generation.


I wonder whether it would be possible to breed a longer-lived species of octopus without reducing their innate intelligence.


There is that slight impediment of short lifespans. The giant pacific octopus has a lifespan 3-5 years. They grow rapidly but do no live long.


They are solitary creatures, and they do not live very long. The social aspect is missing, but maybe this could eventually evolve.


> why don't octopuses have higher aspirations?

Very short lifespans. A tragedy, when you think about it...


Also the plot to Sid Mier's Alpha Centauri, in a way...


I think about this Douglas Adams quote about Dolphins a lot:

"For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons."

You could apply the same idea to octopuses.


While satirical, this doesn’t really make sense as an answer to question at hand. Natural selection dictates that intelligence, if possessed, will be put to use to further survival and reproduction. There are some limits to this — humans in many cases clearly have other goals — but it should be true to a large extent. The wheel, New York, and wars are pretty clearly aligned with this goal.

If the octopus possessed sufficient intelligence, something along the lines of an octopus city would presumably be in the cards. Or if they do possess such intelligence, the question again is why not form civilizations (which would presumably boost survival and fertility rates)?


> Natural selection dictates that intelligence, if possessed, will be put to use to further survival and reproduction.

I disagree with this. Intelligence will only further survival and reproduction if it helps whatever selective pressures the population is under. Livestock are a good example, they were selected to be less intelligent. You're wrongly assuming that the goals of natural selection align with human goals. The only goal of natural selection is gene propagation. In this endeavor, chickens are much more successful. They outnumber humans, humans supply them with food, humans protect them from natural predators. Who are we to say "the only measure of success is a human-like civilization"?


Note that the parent did not say "survival and reproduction will select for intelligence". They said, intelligence if possessed will be put to that use. Livestock may be dumb, but males will still sneak out of their enclosure to mate with the herd, if they can figure out how.

The implication is that if octopuses could make technology, pass on culture etc, they would.


Right, that's how I read it the first time, and that's exactly the point I aim to refute. Imagine a sheep that is sneaking out of their enclosure. Either they manage to mate, or the human catches them and deems them too unruly to mate and a more docile sheep is selected. Either way, the enclosure is reinforced and unruly sheep are phased out of the population.

The most correct statement would be intelligence, if possessed && if it makes the specimen more selective, will be put to use to further survival and reproduction. Countless animals don't rely on intelligence for gene propagation, and wouldn't achieve higher reproductive rates from higher intelligence. Big brains are resource intensive, birds and ants are doing just fine at the natural selection game without high intelligence, technology, culture, or civilization.


> Countless animals don't rely on intelligence for gene propagation

Also true of countless humans


There are actually a very small number of octopus "cities". For one, see: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/octopus-city-obser...

I highly recommend "Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness" for a fascinating look at octopus evolution and comparison to ourselves.


Octopodes have their own evolutionary barriers though, irrespective of intelligence:

- They only typically live 4 years and the act of reproducing kills them

- They live in coastal ocean biomes, which have high selective pressures

In order for intelligence to flourish, a form of communication is needed and the method to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next. An octopus is a solitary organism, unlike mammals which are tribal. It does not live long enough to develop social skills or to transfer knowledge to their offspring, so there isn't any accumulation of information for their species to build cities or technologies. Each individual is forced to self educate and re learn survival.

Your criteria for intelligence is more criteria for safe habitat than intelligence. Just because they don't live long enough to learn language or write books doesn't mean they are not intelligent.


Octopuses have been around for 300 million years, I think they've got survival and reproduction covered at this point. I would be careful of conflating shared culture with intelligence, especially in this context given octopuses are mainly solitary.


Would they though? cities allow close contact often which allows disease to spread thus wiping them out. Eventually you create sanitation, medication and such. It is a long time from intelligence to designing sanitation and medical systems. If you skip all that by avoiding close contact...


If "intelligence, if possessed, will be put to use to further survival and reproduction" were axiomatic, human populations would never decline for any reason other than accidental death, disease, etc. That's not true, however. As standards of living increase, birth rates voluntarily decline until populations shrink. People aren't getting dumber and somehow failing to reproduce as often, but instead are using that intelligence to choose not to reproduce.

Perhaps octopodes are making the same choice?


This is a common misconception about evolution and natural selection [1]. Evolution doesn't have an "arrow", or direction, and it doesn't necessarily lead to any kind of improvements at all. Natural selection merely means that the least healthy individuals of a species will be less likely to pass on their genes. Intelligence likewise will not necessarily be put to any kind of use at all.

The evolution of human intelligence is still a delightfully big, open question in science, but the current thinking is converging on it being, well, as Bob Ross might have put it, a "happy little accident". Researchers have been able to track the development of the human brain through the varying sizes of a hole in fossilized hominid skulls [2]. Brains are massive caloric sinks and require a lot of food, rich in animal fats, to be able to develop. [3] Meanwhile, just a short time ago in evolutionary terms, humans accidentally developed the ability to digest milk into adulthood [4], and we got overall bigger, stronger, and healthier -- but our hungry brains also got a new source of nutrients.

The jury is still out on exactly what evolutionary advantage our brains confer, if any [5]. So, it is possible that human-level intelligence is not an evolutionary advantage at all. There are after all numerous species at the top of their respective food chains, evolving much more slowly, that could be considered successful in evolutionary terms. And, given the caloric requirements of large brains and the unclear advantages that they produce, they could maybe be viewed as a disadvantage.

If we were to view brains as, well, a kind of tumor of sorts, that will simply grow and develop depending on caloric availability, then perhaps humans developed agriculture because our brains were hungry and civilization because our brains got bored, and all of this was only possible because we accidentally developed the ability to digest lactose as adults, and none of it is a necessary consequence of evolution at all.

This btw is one of the major components to my favorite answer for the Fermi Paradox.

[1]: https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/misconceptions_faq...

[2]: http://theconversation.com/how-our-species-got-smarter-throu...

[3]: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/sorry... (I don't love the headline on this article, but the content is okay.)

[4]: https://slate.com/technology/2012/10/evolution-of-lactose-to...

[5]: https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/08/the-evolutionary-mys...


> Natural selection dictates that intelligence, if possessed, will be put to use to further survival and reproduction.

Hows that working out for us, with us poisoning the world and global warming coming?


I think of David Brin's fascinating article that touches on Dolphins:

http://www.davidbrin.com/nonfiction/dogmaofotherness.html


Well they have always been considered solitary. We don't even have a collective noun. So they may consider such things their idea of nightmare.

That said, we have discovered some areas where they gather[1], so it really comes down to us not knowing nearly enough. Much of life in the oceans remains a mystery.

[1] https://ourblueplanet.bbcearth.com/blog/?article=are-octopus...


"Or figuring out how to pass on information from generation to generation."

The marine biologist at a aquarium told us (semi-jokingly) that this is the reason they haven't taken over the world yet.

They just leave their children to their own and don't teach them anything at all. So every octopus born has to relearn everything and once done, they die.


Historically humans have asked this of other humans which typically are the darkest parts of our history where we devalued one another. Perhaps the Octopus is just happy with its lot. They also don't live very long only a handful of years, which is also testament to just how smart they actually are.


It also takes cooperation to build cities, and octopuses aren't terribly social.


Maybe because they are solitary creatures. Without society, where would humans be?


Maybe they do, but they are smart enough to hide it from us.


> The octopus conundrum is an instructive example of how an animal can be complex and intelligent, and yet we are, so far, unable to answer the question of its subjective experience or even whether the question has any meaning for that creature.

I'm not sure, but I think that the author is arguing that we can't say for sure whether any other creatures are conscious. There are the mirror experiments, but ultimately, we know that humans are (in general) conscious because we (personally) are conscious.


There's a bio professor at my university, Michael Dickinson, who is one of the world's leading experts on flies, so much so that his email handle is "flyman". His group is trying to understand the relationship between the fruit fly's biological structure and it's behavior. They do all these zany experiments with motion tracking where they observe a bunch of flies interacting and try to figure out what's going on in their brains. Really cool stuff. I've always felt that if we could understand the genes -> cells -> systems -> behavior pathway much better then our understanding of the world might be completely transformed... I think octopuses would be an especially interesting model organism to study.


Also related: Thomas Nagel's 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?' (https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/iatl/study/ugmodules/hum... ) wherein he argues that subjective experience transcends objective materialism.


> The octopus has a central brain and also an independent, smaller processor in each arm, giving it a unique mixture of centralized and distributed command.

This is the most interesting part. I read that an octopus's brain can give their arms high-level commands, and the arms can execute some commands by themselves.


I did not appreciate life as a young person. It is only in recent years that I am absolutely enthralled by the beauty of life. Seeing how complex life is, it is surprising that it even exists. I sometimes question my own motivations about how I frivolously I have lived my life without paying much attention to suffering in the lives of other living beings. I also feel powerless in front of the huge economic forces that I have to come to depend on for my sustenance. I wish we were better equipped to comprehend the suffering in another life. I know it only when I am told explicitly. I see all the painful ways we hunt and find it extremely painful. And much of civilization thinks of hunting as a sport. Causing pain to another species is sport!


I think you'd be surprised how many hunters appreciate the beauty and fragility of nature to a much higher degree than the average person. Who else sits in the woods for hours and hours and studies the patterns of animals and weather? There are some dumbasses who just like shooting guns, but a lot of hunters are also conservationists.


I guess that depends on the person and on the country, but system is certainly broken at least in some countries. For exmample in my country hunter's organisation is something like NRA - it's the only easy way to have access to weapons, and a lot of people participate just to shoot. They treat state forests as farms - feeding animals so there's overpopulation and then they can shoot them using the excuse that there's too many...


Sure hunters can be conservationists; losing nature means losing their source of entertainment. But that doesn't mean they appreciate nature and it certainly doesn't mean they respect individuals, which they obviously do not.


I think conservationsist is meant in a sense that they respect and appreciate nature. Every hunter I've come across was conversationist (in a sense that they appreciate nature), but I am biased because a lot I've come across were through national parks. But there are certainly a lot of conservationist hunters.

I think your second sentence is not well formulated because if one does not follow you line of thought it does not make sense (X does not do Y because it obviously does not do Y). It's probalbly a risky subject, it might be that you just want to avoid too intense internet-arguments with that phrasing.


>I think conservationsist is meant in a sense that they respect and appreciate nature.

These kinds of conversations inevitably involve either special pleading or completely distorted definitions of words like "respect" that we would not accept in any other context.

>I think your second sentence is not well formulated because if one does not follow you line of thought it does not make sense [...]

I honestly have no idea what you're trying to communicate here. Do you want to try again?


> These kinds of conversations inevitably involve either special pleading or completely distorted definitions of words like "respect" that we would not accept in any other context.

And I think this is a bit condescending. You're essentially denying me to have a different opinion because it's just invalid in your point of view. To give you perspective: I am not a hunter, I am a vegetarian and have been very active in environmental protection. I am certainly not advocating for myself or feel the need to defend my actions by special pleading or completely distorted definitions. But I see that hunters fullfill an important role because we don't really have much wild nature here in germany anymore and for most parts it's not possible because there's not enough space and the developed nature is not robust enough. Enviromentalist organisations here often work quite closely with hunters. And I also see that hunters exist that respect and appreciate nature (not because they want to hunt), which you seem to deny.

> I honestly have no idea what you're trying to communicate here. Do you want to try again?

"But that doesn't mean they appreciate nature and it certainly doesn't mean they respect individuals, which they obviously do not." Does not make sense to me because "certainly doesn't mean they respect individuals, which they obviously do not." does not. You say "X does not do Y because it obviously does not do Y." where X is the hunter and Y is respecting individuals. You treat it as given but for me it's not. What I wanted to say is that your sentence only makes sense when one shares your line of thought (it's obvious then), but when one does not then it's a not an argument (it is so because it is so). You treat it as a fact. In spirit it's similiar to my reply above.


We're not talking about differences in opinion here. We're talking about abuse of language. You cannot respect an individual and kill them for entertainment. If you think otherwise, you're using a completely different definition of the word 'respect' and it's certainly not the definition that would be used in any other context. Hunters can be conservationists. They can even be a net positive for nature overall. But they kill other individuals. For enjoyment. Unnecessarily. They don't respect them. And I say this is obvious because it's a simple syllogism.

Pretending that there is some sort of subjectivity to this discussion is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. You keep trying to shift this back to opinions and points of view, which I find is a common tactic when discussing animals, but we're not talking about anything subjective.


> Pretending that there is some sort of subjectivity to this discussion is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. You keep trying to shift this back to opinions and points of view, which I find is a common tactic when discussing animals, but we're not talking about anything subjective.

Well, I think this answer is even more condescending. A discussion from here is not possible since you entirely deny every other opinion on the topic and assert yourself the objective truth. You ignore the various aspects of the problem, for example professional hunters. A quick search reveals philosophers discussion the question and coming to different or complex answers that depend on various factors (most importantly: why does the hunter hunt?), so I can't be the only one not buying into your line of thought. I originally was honestly interested in you opinion, but it seems there's no depth to it. You can't even defend it, you're just reinforcing that you're right.

EDIT: since there's another answer in a similiar spirit there's at least one other opinion that rejects or doubts your statement.

EDIT2: An interesting example to reinforce my arguments is that the statement "women, who have abortions, don't respect human live, because they obviously do not" is seen as trivial by some but rejected by others. These things do not live in a mathmatical world where axioms are stated, agreed and theorems derived using proofs and pure logic. So one talking about those topics can never assert the obvious truth to his statements. There are no right or wrongs in philosophy and ethics (in a mathmatical sense), just statements the people agree on.


You can keep calling me condescending, but that's not an argument. If you have a definition of "respect" that includes unnecessary killing, great. Provide that definition and then tell me that you use the same definition for ones treatment of humans. If not, you're guilty of special pleading. If you have citations of philosophers who make an argument that you can hunt an individual for sport while respecting them, I'd love to see them.

If you want to express a difference in opinion, do so. You keep repeating that you don't like my statements and there are other opinions, but you have not yet been able to articulate what that different opinion is and how it applies to the conversation.


Hunting and deriving enjoyment from it does not mean you can't have respect for the individual animal. Obviously there are sociopathic people out there who kill animals (and other people) without respect but you are arguing that there isn't an alternative. I would argue that hunters that respect animals vastly outnumber the hunters that don't.

Unless you have zero capacity for empathy, it is impossible to not have a massive respect for life when you take direct responsibility for death. Every aspect of our mass produced lives causes death. Unless you are 100% off grid, everything you consume from the vegetables and meat you eat to the clothes on your back are the products of death. Hunting forces you to take direct responsibility.

Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think this aspect was what you took offence to, but it was the idea of enjoyment. I was raised as deer hunter and cried after my first kill. I challenge you to ask any lifelong deer hunter what they enjoy about hunting. Sure, they enjoy finding a big one but none of them find enjoyment in seeing an animal suffer or in the act of killing alone. They become better marksmen so they can kill as quickly and painlessly as possible and they eat what they kill. They enjoy the craft of marksmanship, tracking animals, and land management. They enjoy being alone in the woods all day doing nothing but watching and listening to wildlife. And they enjoy having visceral connection to nature, our past, and what we consume.

I'm not asking you to agree with any of this. I only ask you to try to see that there are other perspectives outside of your bubble and to not flippantly dismiss discussion about them as 'disingenuous and intellectually dishonest.'


>Hunting and deriving enjoyment from it does not mean you can't have respect for the individual animal.

I'll ask you the same thing I've been asking the other commenter. What is your definition of respect that includes the unnecessary killing for sport and will you apply that same definition to humans? I haven't made any arguments about sociopathy, which is a straw man. You went down a long rabbit hole about what hunters enjoy about hunting. None of that is new information to me and none of it is relevant to my point. I'm simply pointing out that any definition of respect that I've come across would not include the unnecessary killing of someone. Whether you enjoy the act of killing and whether you enjoy other aspects of hunting make no difference to the 3 relevant premises: 1. Hunting for sport is unnecessary. 2. Respect for an individual requires not killing them unnecessarily.

Tell me which one of those statements you disagree with. And again, if it's the latter, you can't apply that specifically to prey animals without that being fallacious. We're all completely talking past each other; neither of you have pointed out any issues or disagreement with my reasoning, just that you don't like the outcome as expressed.


Do you consider this statement to be true for all animals with carnivorous behavior or hunting instincts?


Are you asking if I think, for example, lions respect deer as individuals?


Or maybe: "Does someone who buys meat at the store respect individuals more or less than someone who hunts?"


People who fish as well.


At the risk of sounding new-age.. I think man really is full of himself. We think of nature as something simple and marvel at our creations but if you look at it with slightly cold eye, you'll see how everything is complex, subtle, and full of beauty. Wood fiber, feathers, even plants. It's highly intricate weaving of threads giving structure, color, function .. it's not that different from pieces of electronics to me.


For anyone who wants a concrete experiment to challenge your ideas of just how complex nature is, try making a cell. Just one cell. From scratch with nothing but ions and proteins. If you find that to be achievable (there's likely a Nobel prize in it for you), try making one that divides. Now imagine that somehow an elephant can be encoded in the ions/proteins of just two cells. Humanity has never built anything that even comes close to such complexity. And then to imagine that ecosystems operate on the complex interactions between these immensely complex organisms.


> Humanity has never built anything that even comes close to such complexity.

Which is why the idea of using something like Crispr to mess with genes is fraught with so many unknown issues and risk.


Just because I’m not a skilled enough developer to code Linux from scratch doesn’t mean I can’t make a patch for it.

Also doesn’t guarantee that I won’t generate unintended consequences

Point being - you don’t have to be capable of making the whole to make modifications. (But in any complex system, there are likely to be unintended consequences)

A good example would be immune modulation for cancer therapy - ipilimumab and it’s ilk are miracle workers for many, however because of the complexity of the immune system in a proportion of patients there is a cascade of multi organ failure kicked off by the treatment


You can make concrete changes now. Vote with your dollar. Do not support industries that flippantly disregard the beauty and sanctity of life in its many forms.


It's an important start, but sometimes it just feels like it's not enough, especially if people have certain beliefs that they hang onto without being able to defend them, for fear of a slippery slope situation.

Take for example smoking. It's absolutely disgusting how they just throw their cigarette butts on the ground when they're done with them. So, not only is it a harmful activity to engage in for the individual at hand, it also harms people nearby, as well as the environment as the trash they leave behind is not biodegradable. No idea what can be done about this.


Not a smoker but I have a friend who is, and he diligently collects his butts for proper disposal.. but I think he is in the minority.


Like the abortion industry?

Whoops, sorry, crimethink!


Right on the money :)

Eat vegan and ignore the haters.


I’ve said this before here on HN when the octopus came up but I’ll say it again: these creatures are so damn smart I stopped eating them when I consume sushi. Many animals possess advanced intellect so I’ve limited my consumption of animals but it’s the octopus that has a special place in my eyes. What majestic creatures. The females find a rock to give birth to the next generation and slowly starve to death while doing so. As soon I learned that I thought of my own single mom while she didn’t give her life raising me or my sister she did sacrifice a lot.


I don’t think it makes sense to say “you look cute or seem smart” as the criteria for not destroying a creature. Everything is intelligent, it’s just a spectrum of intelligence. Makes more sense given we can’t really discern on that spectrum to just try and eat fewer of any animal, not just octopi, but birds and mammals as well. Mammals in particular if you use this criteria to not eat octopi.


What basically kicked off major concerns for me were articles and reports about human cases where people are too disabled to express their emotions and thoughts. Think strokes, major head trauma or birth defects.

From this perspective, I would at the very least become far more careful about judging animals too quickly. Just because we cannot read them and interpret their emotions doesn't mean they don't feel love, comfort, fear, amusement or terror.

How long did it take for us to understand that lobsters feel excruciating pain when boiled alive? It took microbiology to figure that out... whoopsy, what are those pain hormones doing here?


It definitely gave me pause - I learned something similar from my dying grandfather, who I thought was becoming uncontactable. Then one day, taken into the hospital and given IV, he really came to and became mostly coherent again. We had a great few hours with him and some of his friends who were there to visit. (He died a month later, and it is long ago now.)

Just think of, how much temporary conditions shape how we see people.

(And yet more horrifying, there are cases of comatose people coming to temporarily, being just like themselves, only to never wake up again.)


> Just because we cannot read them and interpret their emotions doesn't mean they don't feel love, comfort, fear, amusement or terror.

What makes us so confident that plants don't also meet this criteria? Can lab grown algae burgers feel love? How would we know?

I'm not trying to argue that we should stop eating everything. But I'm not sure how we'd draw a line between some/all animals and other things that are even harder to read. I'm genuinely curious where we'd draw a line.


"What makes us so confident that plants don't also meet this criteria?"

Brains or other possible organs for processing information are metabolically expensive to operate and entropically expensive to maintain the genetics required to build them. If there is no evolutionary advantage for plants to have sensations and emotions, they will not evolve the machinery required to have them.


The line drawn by many vegetarians and vegans is a lack of a central nervous system - but even they admit this is arbitrary.


To add to this, there is also another line you can draw: do not eat anything which requires killing (not just harvesting from) another living thing. This is basically the line drawn by Jain vegetarians (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jain_vegetarianism). This allows one to eat milk and dairy but does not allow one to eat root vegetables that require you to kill the entire organism to eat it (and potentially other living beings that live in the soil).


Milk and dairy really don't fit this criterion in any major civilization today. Animals are definitely killed even if they're not consuming them.


I wonder if they can eat the leg of an animal then? Like the joke about the farmer and his favourite pig.


It's very odd to me that not eating mushrooms is part of Jain vegetarianism. If ever there was a case of a fruit that did no harm to harvest, it is your typical farmed mushroom and even many wild ones.


It's not arbitrary; it's based on our best guess of the minimum requirements for sentience.


> What makes us so confident that plants don't also meet this criteria? Can lab grown algae burgers feel love? How would we know?

When it comes to issues of consciousness, I'm loathe to make any strong claims, since I don't think that phenomenal consciousness is amenable to scientific inquiry due to its innately subjective nature. E.g., for all I know, it might feel like something to be a rock. Though I doubt it.

Likewise for plants, I would hypothesize that feeling things consciously requires complex information processing. E.g., such as is done in the brains of many animals.

Plants certainly process information to some degree, but the degree to which they do so would seem to pale compared to the amount of information processing performed by even the simplest animals that have brains.


We have no idea if they feel excruciating pain we know they have a pain and stress response. That isn't actually the same thing. But why not play it safe.


I made a similar decision to the GP -- it is not just that the octopus is intelligent (pigs are smart too, but I'm less perturbed by eating them). The octopus is such a vastly different creature to most/all other animals that we eat. To me, it feels more like eating a totally alien lifeform, which (subjectively, to me) is a greater pity than just eating something that is smart, but is pretty similar to all other animals (e.g. fish or mammals)


Same - I don't eat any cephalopods now. As an avid diver who has interacted with octopodes and cuttlefish, they really are fantastic creatures and it bothers me to see them on a plate. I also worked on a farm growing up, and though they show signs of intelligence too, pigs never really struck me the same way.


Maybe (I don’t know what it was like on your farm) because the animals get psychotic from living such horrible lives.


The animals on the farm I worked were not raised in inhumane conditions and are not 'psychotic'.


The most touching part is that the very last moments of her life will be to spend whatever energy is left after heating the nest to swim far away to avoid attracting predators near the offsprings.

Bond by sacrifice .. who would have known.


I wonder, though. Here is a thought experiment. What if eating another creature was seen as an act of respect and tribute? I for one enjoy eating highly intelligent animals. I see it as a priviledge to do so. For that reason, if octopus is on the menu you can bet I'm going to eat some.


Imagine an alien civilization applying that logic to human beings. I for one wouldn't feel privileged to be used as cattle for the consumption of another advanced species.


I assure you, I am rather stupid.


I wonder how Stephen Hawking would have tasted like?


same. it is a shame they do not live longer!


Whenever I read an Octopus article I come back to the conviction that if it weren’t for the early death thing, these are the creatures that would be failing to fight the climate crisis, and we would be — if not the creatures on the plate in the tapas joint, at least some scared and scurrying thing in the underbrush.


It's comforting for us as humans, of course, to think that any life form would end up in the same inevitable energy race which destroys the planet. Unfortunately there is no basis for this assumption beyond our own failure.


It's not only intelligence. The success of humans depends just as much on their social traits. Can groups cooperate? Can they have division of labour? Without that, you're not going to get far even if you're super smart.


Maybe this is the highest form of intelligence?

Octupuses also have a very short lifespan which seems apt: you don't need societies, buildings, relationships etc if you have truly mastered the sole purpose of your existence really well - the nature of procreation and empowering the next generation to survive.

Human beings are actually awful at this it: makes me wonder if all social, cultural aspects are truly "too complicated" ways to achieve what octupuses have mastered through a much simpler process and potentially without needing arbitrary things like consciousness.


I agree with that 100%. Human procreation has massively slowed down as wealth increased. I'd love to see some startups/governments tackle this REAL challenge.


I'm not an anti-natalist or anything of the sort, but it would appear to me that if anything, the evolutionary challenge facing humans is that we have had too many babies. Across the globe we've consistently created more humans than our ecosystem can reliably support, or that we can manage to support with our technology.

This has resulted in climate change and ecological destruction.

A future earth with the highest carrying capacity for life might look like the entire globe as rich in life as the Amazon rain forest, with humans benefiting from the enormous diversity. Our ecological niche would be in the microbiome, where the human species eliminates diseases, causes maximally high survival rates in other species, and uses this surplus for our energy supply, along with genetic engineering species to suit our needs.

FWIW, I think many are concerned about conservation already, which I think is the key to our long-term survival as a species.


Not so much of an issue as long as the population keeps increasing (maybe even the opposite...)


> An octopus, with its richly complex behavior and its large eyes filled with focused attention, is a far more compelling inkblot test, so to speak, triggering a strong social perception in us. Not only do we know, intellectually, that it gathers objective information about its world, but we can’t help feeling that it must have a subjective awareness as well emanating out of those soulful eyes.

But the truth is, we don’t know, and the sense we get of its conscious mind says more about us than about the octopus. The experts who study octopuses risk becoming the least reliable observers on this point, because they are the ones most likely to be entranced by these wonderful creatures.

Conciousness debates are so fundamental yet so moot: One can only attribute conciousness based on observing behavior. There really isn't a good "line on the sand" to distinguish who/what is conscious and who isn't for anything from humans to octopuses to microwaves to computer programs.


I believe it's fundamentally impossible to test for consciousness. You can't know if it feels like something to be any other thing but yourself. The domain of scientific knowledge is completely cut off from subjective experience. Even if the octopus could speak and told us in English "I feel therefore I am" we could not know for certain that it produced those words having a conscious understanding of what something feels like. Feeling is fundamentally in a different class of thing from those things which the scientific world can explore. And that to me, is absolutely bizarre. What does that mean? How can that possibly be true? Is it definitely true? What on earth is "feeling"?! What is qualia. It's the deepest question and I think probably holds the key to really understanding why the univers exists.


> I believe it's fundamentally impossible to test for consciousness.

You are talking about "phenomenal consciousness", which is sometimes also referred to as "the hard problem of consciousness". (Though not all philosophers would equate these two terms.) There are quite a few other useful definitions of consciousness, and consequently, all of the different notions of consciousness should not all be lumped together.

I actually have a Philosophy degree from MIT, and I spent almost all my philosophical time worrying about and studying this issue. It still keeps me up at night sometimes to this day.

I agree with you that the hard problem of consciousness is not amenable to scientific study, and consequently, I don't think that we can ever understand it, unfortunately.

I also agree that it is the deepest and most important question about the nature of reality that we could ever have, and it is quite frustrating that we will never know the answer.

Back to other notions of consciousness, though: Many of them are interesting, and I think amenable to scientific inquiry. So we shouldn't let the hard problem of consciousness deter us from studying easier problems of consciousness.


> I agree with you that the hard problem of consciousness is not amenable to scientific study

What if we assume a brain simulator with good debugging tools?


A perfect brain simulator could answer many questions, but it could not answer the hard problem of consciousness. Science is all about objectivity, but there's an element of consciousness that is inherently subjective, and that part - the part the hard problem deals with - is not objectively measurable.


> Science is all about objectivity, but there's an element of consciousness that is inherently subjective

Yes, that is exactly right. Science is all about that which can be studied objectively and the "hard problem of consciousness" is specifically about the component of consciousness that is purely subjective.

How can you study something that is purely subjective using objective methods?

A. You can't!

Here's another question that science can't answer:

The Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the Bohm interpretation of quantum mechanics posit vastly different things about the nature of reality. Unfortunately, they are experimentally indistinguishable from each other.

So, if somehow we could narrow QM down to either MW or Bohm, at this point we are stuck. We can never know which interpretation is the right one, even though the answer to this question is up there in importance with the hard problem of consciousness!


It's interesting how "subjectivity" has been reintroduced into physics and mathematics in the 20th century: Relativity and its frames of reference, Quantum Mechanics and its necessity of entangling yourself with what you want to observe, Statistical Physics showing that entropy was the lack of information that you have about the system, Mathematics - that you were forced to choose a set of postulates that you then wouldn't be able to prove...


So that's interesting. Behaviorism, for instance, was actually an oppressive "science" of the 20th century because it was ideologically opposed to even acknowledging the existence of subjective mental states. The proponents of Behaviorism felt that subjective mental states were inherently unscientific and they wanted to turn Psychology into a respectable science.

Behaviorists were operating under the misconception that something can't be both subjective and objective at the same time. It took Cognitive Psychology to rescue us from this sorry state of affairs. But for years, those who wanted to do Cognitive Psychology academically were blocked from publishing and getting tenure, etc., by the entrenched Behaviorist establishment.

These days we know that via using FMRI, for instance, psychologists and neuroscientists can often determine objectively more about some of your own thoughts than you yourself might know. Or they can sometimes know what you will come to decide before you believe yourself to have decided. Etc.

But certain mental states (i.e., phenomenal ones) seem to have an inherently subjective component that cannot be studied objectively at all. Or at least that's what someone who believes in the "hard problem of consciousness" will say. Others will say, "Pshaw!"


I'd say that too many people still seem to equate "objective" with "real"/"physical"...

(P.S.: Assuming that a "God's view" of the problem has to exist?)

I'm suspecting that physics might end up in a similar situation than mathematics, where we find out that we can't objectively prove everything - and either we'll have an epistemological breakthrough allowing us to deal with subjectivity in a framework that has still some resemblance to a scientific method, or... we won't.

(Personally, I'm hopeful that the Hard Problem can be "dissolved" - and this "philosophical zombie" concept just seems to me to be misguided, just like the concept of aether was.)


Here's an argument for MWI being testable https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/DFxoaWGEh9ndwtZhk/decoherenc...


> Here's an argument for MWI being testable

I skimmed the article very quickly. It doesn't even mention the Bohm interpretation. It has long been considered that the Bohm interpretation and MWI are experimentally indistinguishable. Since the article doesn't specifically mention this issue, I'm not sure that it's worth the slog (if all you care about is the philosophical worry that we can never distinguish whether we're in an MWI world vs a Bohm world.)

As for MWI/Bohm being distinguishable from other interpretations, it is certainly the case that this is true. Though actually doing so in practice would be extremely difficult. My guess is that this article is really on how me might approach trying to narrow the field down to MWI/Bohm, or exclude them, as the evidence may ultimately show.


But is there anything subjective left if all information is accessible and available to observation, study and even replay on other simulated brains?

The QM analogy does not hold because it is about things that are not observable. All information in a hypothetical simulated brain is observable.


> But is there anything subjective left if all information is accessible and available to observation, study and even replay on other simulated brains?

It's impossible to objectively study what it feels like to be another being. One of the canonical examples from the philosophy literature is on what it feels like to be a bat.

We can't ever observe what it feels like to be a bat because the only way to know for sure what it feels like to be a bat is to actually BE a bat. But you can't be a bat. Consequently, you cannot know for sure what it feels like to be a bat.

Another example from the philosophy literature is the "inverted spectrum hypothesis". Let's say that we make a robot duplicate of you. The robot duplicate of you behaves exactly as you would in all situations. Now let's say that we show the robot a ripe tomato. When you look at this ripe tomato, you will experience a feeling of redness. But for all we know, the robot duplicate of you might feel blueness instead. I.e., it might feel what you feel when you look at the sky on a beautiful summer day.

There's no way for us to know the answer to this question.

There are also philosophers who argue that a robot duplicate of you would feel nothing at all. E.g., no redness, no blueness. If you want to know more about why someone would believe this, look up Searle's Chinese Room argument.

Philosophers who take this point of view believe that any robot will be a "zombie". I.e., it will have all the other sorts of consciousness that we might talk about, but it wouldn't have phenomenal consciousness.

This is also sometimes referred to as the "absent spectrum hypothesis".


All those things you mention represent information. Information encoded in matter. Information that can be compared. We could hypothetically compare two neural circuits that respond to red and thus see if they have the same activation profiles for redness.

Batness could similarly be simulated and then made available to a human brain as read-only stream, perhaps as a dream-like experience.

This is entirely speculative, handwavy and would take fantastic levels of technology, but it does not seem information-theoretically impossible unless you assume that there is something immaterial, at which point things just turn into religion.

Thus it is within the realm of scientific study, albeit it requiring currently hypothetical instruments. But so does the study of quantum mechanics in strongly curved spacetime.

> If you want to know more about why someone would believe this lookup Searle's Chinese Room argument.

I am familiar with it and agree with the position that the (turing-complete) chinese room is simply a way to describe an AGI which speaks chinese and the operator of the room is the computational substrate of the AI and thus a red herring. It's really just an anachronistic analogy.


You're arguing that there is no "hard problem of consciousness". You're wrong. But at least you have plenty of company. Philosophers have been debating this issue rabidly for decades. Huge tomes have been written on the subject, arguing both for and against the "hard problem" being real.

We are not going to settle this issue here. I suggest that we come back in a millennium and see if any progress has been made. I don't have high hopes.


You're making it sound more and more like that problem is an invisible pink unicorn.


> You're making it sound more and more like that problem is an invisible pink unicorn.

You might have a point if philosophers had been arguing for decades and written huge tomes on whether or not there is an invisible pink unicorn. But they haven't.

The academic philosophy community isn't made up of dimwits. You don't do anyone a service by implying that they are.


I'm not calling anyone a dimwit. Great minds can erect complex thought edifices containing clever arguments but ultimately rest on shaky foundations. E.g. methodically respectable, rigorous studies are made on parapsychology. Newton was studying the occult, european scientists were chasing N-rays.

To me qualia, subjective experience, p-zombies and so on either appear to be arguments from insufficient information or require non-material (read: supernatural) phenomena. The former would crumble under sufficiently advanced study, the latter are invisible pink unicorns with people arguing over the exact spectral distribution of pink.


(1) You are being extremely dismissive, indicating that your mind is closed on the topic, so there is really no point in any further discussion.

(2) As I mentioned previously, we are not going to settle this debate here anyway. There's a huge amount of literature on the issue. And even just "getting" what the issues are often requires attending a Philosophy of Mind class for weeks or months and doing lots of reading and discussing and philosophizing with an open mind.

(3) If your mind is less closed than it seems, and you don't have access to a good Philosophy of Mind class, you might read this book by David Chalmers:

https://www.amazon.com/Character-Consciousness-Philosophy-Mi...

I'm guessing it'll be kind of a slog, though. And I don't agree with much of what he says, but it's a start at least. He's also the most famous proponent of "the hard problem" (or at least he was when I was actively studying Philosophy of Mind). He's also the person who coined the term "hard problem of consciousness".

Or you could start with the Wikipedia page, but I doubt that anyone would be convinced by it:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness


I am dismissive because you make absolute statements as if there were formal proof and dismiss doubt with "you are wrong" and "attend class for weeks", the latter reminding me of climate change skeptic and creationist retorts.

I am also dismissive because I don't see a succinct motivating example, paradox etc.

A similarly speculative, philosophical field is the simulation hypothesis. At first glance it's metaphysical, untestable and indistinguishable from base reality and thus not very informative. But then people throw up questions how simulation fidelity might show up in high energy physics or what it would mean if the simulation had bugs/were hackable. It's still far out there but at least there is a direct aim to get away from metaphysics, instead finding ways to subject it to scientific inquiry. This drive is what I am missing in your replies. Claiming that something is categorically unknowable and yet an important field of study is inconsistent.


So this is something for you to think about if you really want to have a discussion: I mentioned this issue briefly in my longer response, but it might serve our interests to just jump into the debate in bite-sized bits.

The famous cosmologist Max Tegmark has written an entire book (and published several papers) arguing that there is no difference between mathematical existence and physical existence and therefore all worlds that can be described mathematically and consistently are just as "real" as our world. Consequently, physical existence of a world is due to nothing more than that such a world can be described mathematically.

According to Tegmark, our world is just pure math with no extra secret sauce to make it "real" and physical. And so, of course, according to Tegmark, there are an infinite number of other worlds described by math that also exist physically. And they exist physically for no other reason than that they exist mathematically.

Do you agree with Tegmark?

And if you don't, why isn't it the case that you are postulating invisible pink unicorns to explain the difference between mathematical existence and physical existence?

(Note: I'm not aware of this approach to arguing for the hard problem to be present in the literature. This argument is my own.)


> I am dismissive because you make absolute statements as if there were formal proof

If I were writing a formal proof, you would know it. I have expressed my beliefs and explained as best I can the reasons for them with the extremely limited time that I had available to me.

As for "You are wrong", I softened that with the acknowledgement that you have plenty of company amongst philosophers, and that the subject has been a topic of vigorous debate for decades, and that reasonable people differ on this issue and that we weren't going to be able to resolve such a fraught issue in this limited forum.

You want more tip-toeing than that in a debate? Really? My Philosophy professors would just say directly to you in the middle of a class in front of everyone else, things like, "You are suffering from a profound misconception." This was just a challenge to you to either step up your argument or to ask them for more explication. They would not, however, mock you, or impute that you or half of all the Philosophers who study the topic are so ignorant that they are making an invisible unicorn argument.

As for attending classes for weeks to understand the issue: I have a Philosophy degree from MIT. I spent most of my actual work on Philosophy studying THIS particular issue. It took ME weeks in my first Philosophy of Mind class, when we got to this very topic to ultimately understand the issues involved. I wasn't slower than anyone else in the class either. In fact I'm a natural at Philosophy. I.e., I got an A on every single Philosophy paper I ever wrote. (And MIT does not have grade inflation.) As with most difficult philosophical issues, true understanding really only sets in when setting out to write a paper on the topic.

What's also somewhat unique about this particular philosophical divide is that no matter how much motivating either side does, many philosophers (e.g., even famous professional ones) cannot see the opposing viewpoint at all. No matter what is said, there is a certain contingent on both sides that basically just pounds their fists on the table in frustration that the other side won't even acknowledge that their side might have a valid point.

So what exactly am I supposed to tell you other than that I don't have the time to explain why I don't have the time to explain? (That's an inside joke from the video game Destiny, btw.)

If your point is that I wasted thousands of hours of my life studying this topic, point taken. As Wittgenstein claimed, studying Philosophy is more of a disease than anything else, since with most topics that it deals with, you can argue about the topic for hundreds of years without making much progress. But it's a disease that typically only afflicts people who are passionate and smart and who would like to understand something better, even if such understanding may be ultimately illusive.

> I am also dismissive because I don't see a succinct motivating example, paradox etc.

What makes you think that everything that's of interest can be motivated with a succinct example? Lisp is clearly the best programming language humans have ever devised and yet most programmers just dismiss it as having too many parentheses. If you can't convince people to use the best programming language no matter how much you explain the issues, why should you be able to convince a skeptic about a complex philosophical issue that is moot with respect to any practical concerns.

Though most people immediately do see why there might be a philosophical worry when you mention a robot duplicate of them, and how maybe it might feel different if you had a silicon brain rather than a meat brain. Or that it might not feel like anything at all. Most people just immediately get that there's a worry here. That's about as close as one can come to succinct motivating example. Also, most everyone who ever goes into Philosophy of Mind came up with the inverted spectrum hypothesis on their own when they were ten years old. If that doesn't describe you, then Philosophy of Mind will likely never be your cup of tea. (How can it be that they come up with this at a young age and then end up pounding the table later in life? Well, I'm not sure. I suppose that they've had an epiphany in the meantime, or they dismiss their ten-year-old philosophizing as childish musings.)

> Claiming that something is categorically unknowable and yet an important field of study is inconsistent.

You are suffering from a profound misconception. For instance, it is categorically unknowable in the general case what the morally right thing to do is. And yet ethics is still a field of the utmost importance. E.g., you can, after a whole lot of rumination and debate come up with, for instance, strategies that you might have good reason to believe will increase your likelihood of doing the morally right thing. Fingers crossed.

Also, if QM turns out to be consistent with the Many Worlds interpretation, it is categorically unknowable whether or not it is really the Bohm interpretation that is correct. On the other hand, you may come up with philosophical reasons to believe that one interpretation is more likely to be true than the other. And which is more likely might help you with other important philosophical issues.

Ultimately, this forum is just not the right place to have the sort of discussion that you seem to want to have because discussing the various arguments can be very involved and intricate. This forum is not the right place for such discussions and I don't have the free time right now anyway.

If you actually are interested, rather than just wanting to throw stones, we could move the discussion to Reddit or another forum, and I could provide better motivation for my beliefs on this issue when I have the time and inclination to do so properly.

I actually have my own novel argument on this topic. But it first relies on having some knowledge of Max Tegmark's argument that there's no difference between mathematical existence and physical existence and therefore all worlds that can be described mathematically and consistently are just as real as our world. I.e., our world is just pure math with no extra secret sauce to make it real. (Max Tegmark is a famous cosmologist, in case you don't already know.)


"inverted spectrum hypothesis " - it has a name! :D


> "inverted spectrum hypothesis " - it has a name! :D

Uh, oh! You're doomed now. You're going to have to waste thousands of hours of your life studying Philosophy!


Heh, too late for that - but I wonder why I haven't stumbled on any philosophical literature about it before ?


> Heh, too late for that

It's never too late!

> but I wonder why I haven't stumbled on any philosophical literature about it before ?

Well, you'd usually only be exposed to it via a Philosophy of Mind class or in journals for professional philosophers.


> This is entirely speculative, handwavy and would take fantastic levels of technology, but it does not seem information-theoretically impossible unless you assume that there is something immaterial, at which point things just turn into religion.

My position on this is that there are natural phenomena which cannot be fully described mathematically. There's nothing supernatural about such things. They are just physical things, like all other physical things, but which defy mathematical analysis.

If you don't believe what I just said, then it seems that you are forced to believe Max Tegmark's theory that there is nothing to physical existence other than mathematical existence. Is that really a theory that you buy into.

It's certainly an interesting theory, but I'd be willing to wager that most scientists would not be willing to sign on.


Interesting point. Could you recommend something to read about this topic, or maybe you have some writeups of your own? Mainly interested about the correlation between quantum mechanics and the problem of consciousness.


> Could you recommend something to read about this topic

Well, if you want to dive right in, you could read this book by David Chalmers, who is (or at least was when I actively studied such things) the most famous philosopher who has grappled with the "hard problem" of consciousness:

https://www.amazon.com/Character-Consciousness-Philosophy-Mi...

There are a bunch of books and published papers on the topic, of course. But most of them, including the book listed above, would be a slog if you're not taking a philosophy class on the subject. Even then, they'd likely be a slog. Philosophy arguments on this topic can quickly become extremely intricate, and laden with jargon.

I've written a number of papers on the topic myself for classes, but don't recall if any of them are accessible to someone with no prior knowledge of the debate. There might be a decent one that I wrote for Douglas Hofstadter when he was a visiting professor at MIT. I can check and send you a copy if it seems like it might be approachable.

As for a correlation between consciousness and quantum mechanics, that's not really something I buy into. The famous physicist Roger Penrose, however, wrote a couple of books arguing that computers can never be intelligent because the human brain does special quantum mechanics stuff. If you ask me, his ideas about this are a bunch of claptrap. But in case you are interested, here is one of them:

https://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-Universe-Quantum-Physic...


I am not an expert in either of these fields, but I wouldn’t dismiss the correlation. Quantum mechanics tackles the problem of the observer. If you put a cat in a box, it’s in an undefined state until someone looks at it. If you send your friend over to check the cat, he sees the cat but to you it’s still in an undefined state. Now the friend comes back and tells you the information about the cat, and suddenly your conciousness has indirectly “resolved” the state of the cat. You can extrapolate this to all events in the universe, basically when your consciousness came into existence you have resolved the entire history of the universe.


The "interpretation" that you are using of QM is just one of many proposed interpretations. Specifically, you are referring to an interpretation called the "Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation". It's not an interpretation that I buy into.

The only interpretations that really make sense to me are objective collapse theories and the Many Worlds interpretation. For neither of these interpretations does human consciousness cause wave function collapse.

If you want to know more about the various interpretations of QM, there's a Wikipedia page on them here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpretations_of_quantum_mec...

If you'd like to know even more, here's a good book on the topic:

https://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Mechanics-Experience-David-Al...


thanks for the detailed info


No problem!


We can't "really" know anything about the "real" world either - yet hardly anyone takes solipsism seriously...


> We can't "really" know anything about the "real" world either - yet hardly anyone takes solipsism seriously...

Philosophers generally take solipsism seriously. They just do something called "bracketing" regarding solipsism. "Bracketing" is a philosopher's way of saying, "Yes, this is a serious issue, but we can't make any progress unless we ignore the problem, so that's what we're going to do. But we'll be sure to keep it in the back of our heads as a possibility, lest it come back and bite us."

I.e., virtually every philosophical argument starts with an implicit, "For the sake of argument let's assume that solipsism isn't true." There are also probably dozens of other such worries that are typically bracketed.

Mathematicians often do something similar. There are certain mathematical conjectures (usually involving infinities in my experience) which we can prove can neither be proved nor disproved. So mathematicians will just assume some such conjectures for the sake of making progress. One example of this would be the axiom of choice.


I would argue it's moot to discuss consciousness unless someone prefaces the discussion with a specific definition, preferably a scientific one and not some woo.

Philosophical consciousness suffers from too many issues for day to day discussion, some previous arguments I made in this direction before: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20501688


Yup I agree, the hard problem of consciousness should be deliberately excluded from discussions on various topics, particularly AI. It's not useful, its fascinating, but it's irrelevant and distracting for most purposes.


It's not even clear to me that consciousness is "real" at the level of base reality, but I do have a proposed test: link yourself up to an octopus using the same BMI setups that are used to allow two rats to share experiences and memories. If you start experiencing/remembering the life of an octopus, the brain on the other side of those wires is almost certainly conscious. The inverse is not true, of course; we could simply fail to grasp the differences between the brains of cephalopods and mammals, resulting in a bad connection to a perfectly fine brain.

(I'm more than 99% sure that octopuses experience the world, but I think this test can be generalised to simpler life forms in principle.)


I don't think that would be a good test, either. All that would prove is that there exists a storage device, and a method by which to read it. It doesn't imply that the recording device is conscious.


Disagree, it would additionally show that the storage device was in a natively consciousness-readable format, and that's just for memory sharing. Experience sharing, if that's what the "light in one cage, button in another, reward for both" study really shows (as opposed to, say, short-term memory sharing that appears like experience sharing to an outside observer) would seem to directly suggest the circuitry of consciousness. Of course it can't be completely proven, but neither can anything else.


> I believe it's fundamentally impossible to test for consciousness. You can't know if it feels like something to be any other thing but yourself.

I used to believe that too, but it turns out that consciousness can interact with consciousness.

E.g. find someone you love and trust, sit facing each other, hold hands, stare into each other's eyes, and breath in synchrony. For some cases nothing really happens in other cases... shared subjective experience.

> The domain of scientific knowledge is completely cut off from subjective experience.

Shared subjective experience is still subjective.


I think you're right, but taking this approach leads to some strange conclusions.

For example, that there is no way for you to know that everyone you have ever known is conscious.


Relevant reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie

The answer seems to lie in qualia. But by definition that is something that one cannot authentically communicate. And the notion of qualia itself is increasingly convergent with DNN latent space. Is the redness of red or the warmth of sunlight just a vector in n-dimensional latent space somewhere in our brain computers?

Maybe we're not really conscious.


What does this even mean? How can we not be 'really' conscious? How can I deny my own 'qualia'? I think you cannot explain subjective experience as a vector in latent space because it transcends any space in which you 'project' it in. My subjective experience is that which experiences that latent space, not identical to it.


I've owned a lot of very moody animals of all kinds in my past which make a strong case for subjective experience in advanced lifeforms. If you disregard those external phenomena as a simple cause-and-effect relationship without subjective experience, you could easily do the same for human beings. Most of my goals in life can be traced back to the need for food, shelter, reproduction, and lack of stress.

IMO emotional capacitance is one of the leading contributors to the kind of consciousness that we feel, but is not a prerequisite for consciousness in general. It just depends on what you consider consciousness.

Some people think that all orchestrated matter has a proportional level of "consciousness" related to its thermodynamic complexity arising from quantum phenomena, but without the ability to "feel" (emotional circuitry) and "think" (logical circuitry) you're hard pressed to tell me a rock is alive in any sense of the word. But an octopus? C'mon, they're contenders for #2 intelligence on the planet. If anyone has subjective experience, it's them.


>The experts who study octopuses risk becoming the least reliable observers on this point, because they are the ones most likely to be entranced by these wonderful creatures.

That sounds like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" line of reasoning though...

I'd inverse the usual advice about not anthropomorphizing and ask "why not anthropomorphize"? Most creatures, especially the more advanced ones, are pretty close to us. Some, we literally descended from not very long ago, evolution-wise.

They might not have abstract concepts and higher reasoning, but they could very well have "subjective awareness"...

>Conciousness debates are so fundamental yet so moot: One can only attribute conciousness based on observing behavior.

Well, that's for now. If we find the exact mechanism and complexity threshold required for consciousness (e.g. by experiment with simulations and artificial brains and brain modeling), we might be able to test and measure for it directly (e.g. with brain activity scanning).


> I'd inverse the usual advice about not anthropomorphizing and ask "why not anthropomorphize"? Most creatures, especially the more advanced ones, are pretty close to us. Some, we literally descended from not very long ago, evolution-wise.

This is very much not true of octopuses, who diverged from us somewhere just after the development of bilateralism.


> why not anthropomorphize?

It would be easy to be flippant about this suggestion and reply something like "Because we're doing science, not making Disney cartoons?" But the issue is not so black and white. I once saw a lecture by Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow) where he described why he talks about "System 1" and "System 2" as if they were real things (when of course there is no part of the brain you could point to and label as either) and his argument was that he was intentionally making use of a feature of the human mind which allows it to think quickly and reliably about "agents," (to use his exact word.) In other words, he is intentionally anthropomorphizing abstract systems to make it easier to attribute certain characteristics to it.

There's some evidence this works in multiple contexts. First, we have the Wason selection task where performance improves remarkably when a problem is translated from an abstract logic question to a question about checking IDs at a bar. Humans are good at thinking about rule enforcement in a social context, and terrible about thinking about abstract logic. Second, we have various mnemonic techniques which associate the things to be memorized (cards, digits of pi, whatever) with people (often celebrities) and then encode information (say, a hundred people each representing two digits) by telling stories about the people. "Einstein and Mr. Rogers baked pies for Lady Gaga" is much easier to remember than "314159".

If the human brain is wired to be good at thinking about other humans, if we can therefore co-opt more of our brain matter to work on a problem, why isn't that a good thing? After all, Popper would say that as long as the theories make falsifiable predictions, who cares where they come from? And shouldn't we be as open minded and creative as possible during the hypothesis generation phase of science, as Feyerabend argued in Against Method? If Kepler's mystic beliefs about numbers could lead him to groundbreaking work in astronomy, who are we to deny any scientist any aspect of their full mental powers?

And yet reliance on intuitive models often lead to bias, blind spots, and unwarranted assumptions. We have to remember that these specialized aspects of our brains evolved to solve very specialized problems in a particular environment, and the further we get from those traditional environments the worse they perform. Geometric intuition, developed by apes for a 3D world on the scale of meters was extremely useful aid when bootstrapping mathematics when it first allowed us to grasp plane geometry intuitively, but it became a hindrance as we investigated very small, very large, very fast, or very massive objects. Anthropomorphic models may allow to quickly generate new ideas, but we must always be willing to cast aside such intuitions as our theories develop.

So, I would say that if we currently are at a loss for theories that fit the available data on octopuses, we should place no restrictions on what theories we consider; and if anthropomorphic thinking is one way of generating new hypotheses, than so much the better: toss them on the pile with the others and test them all. But if lessons from the history of science hold true, it is likely that we shall soon have to abandon these early theories (despite the siren call of their intuitive appeal) in favor of more objective, more abstract, and less intuitive concepts that nevertheless explain the facts more thoroughly and more deeply.


>There really isn't a good "line on the sand" to distinguish who/what is conscious and who isn't for anything from humans to octopuses to microwaves to computer programs.

I agree, but one step further I don't think we even have a base line definition for what consciousness really is, so how could we start defining what is and what isn't?


We can't. Ever. Even with each other, we only assume.

I can only see one ultimate conclusion: consciousness is a silly meme and doesn't really matter. (Then, a corollary: personhood is a silly meme and doesn't really matter.) :D


>Then, a corollary: personhood is a silly meme and doesn't really matter.

The Supreme Court beat you to it and extended personhood to corporations. No one ever accused a corporation of being conscious.


you seem to be biased toward human exceptionalism, probably as a way to take the skeptical position. but the proper skeptical position would be to assume consciousness in the absence of definitive proof, since animals are observably much more similar than different (compared to a microwave or even a plant).


I came here to quote the ink blot metaphor as well. It raises a great question, and earns it thoroughly I think: Consciousness may be sensed before proven. What is the basis of that feeling, and is it worthy of scie tific consideration?

Personally I think it's a brilliant metaphor. What do we see in an ink blot? What do we see in any symmetries?


Experts who spend tons of time with animals (like in zoos) also assume animals feel affection for their handlers. This may be the case for some animals but I've seen it said for animals like snakes. A snake doesn't have any concept of love/affection (especially for a human).


I dont know about snakes, but affection is absolutely visible among the elephants, as I saw them often during my childhood. Baby elephants act a lot like toddlers; curios, playful, affectionate towards things they like, not caring about other things, needing their mother (or any female adult in case of elephants)

They can't read and write but they do react "emotionally"


I have read that all mammals seem to share some of the same emotional patterns and ability to relate to each other. Snakes and other reptiles, I have heard, don't have any of these traits and have no capability to feel any emotions at all. Supposedly, your pet snake that you care for every day, will never see you as a friend, just a warm thing in its environment, and bigger ones will happily try to eat you anytime they feel hungry. You're supposed to feed them often enough that they don't feel hungry and so aren't a threat to any humans, including children or other household pets.


But maybe even a snake could experience a rudimentary kind of “joy” based in a conditioning - the handler always bringing food, warmth and other attention. Maybe it on some very primitive level “appreciates” the thing in it’s environment?


Maybe? I'm not an animal behavior expert or anything. But I do know that:

Reptiles are not social/herding animals

Many handlers report that a hungry snake will be happy to eat anything that looks edible, including you, your kid, your dog, etc.

Humans do have a tendency to anthropomorphize, or attribute human emotions to things that absolutely cannot feel them, including machines, insects, plants, rocks, etc.

Knowing that, I wouldn't trust the assumption that it must feel something. Animals, especially non-mammals, are near-alien in how their behavior may differ from what we're used to. Ignoring the advice of experts on how they actually behave is a good way to get killed.


Agreed. I didn't mean the snake would feel something akin to affection. And I didn't mean it would hesitate to eat you. I meant if might feel some kind of appreciation of you (the handler) being around because of all past good stimuli.

After all, it's not social, but it might have a use for such a feeling in the wild, to learn about good hunting conditions.

(This is all so much speculation and I have no great hope snakes might feel anything at all.)


Absolutely. That's why I said "some animals". Many mammals definitely show affection.


I had a pet spider and did happen to witness it's suddenly dying (of old age) and even though it's anthropomorphic, in that moment I really could sense terror and pain so even insects can be capable of some 'emotion'. But not affection (that I know of).


my line in the sand is play. Does this creature play?


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